Recognising and responding to harmful sexual behaviour displayed by young people

Last updated: 16 Mar 2017 Topics: Inappropriate or concerning behaviour

This briefing (PDF) on recognising and responding to harmful sexual behaviour displayed by young people in sport outlines what is normal sexualised behaviour and how to recognise and respond to concerning behaviour.

Author: NSPCC Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU)
Published: 2017


  • Introduction
  • Defining harmful sexual behaviour (HSB)
  • Why is HSB a concern?
  • Why do some children sexually harm others?
  • A continuum of behaviours
  • How to respond to concerns about harmful sexual behaviour in sports settings
  • Further information and support 


As parents, coaches and officials working with young people in sport, we all want to do the best we can to protect them while giving them the freedom they need to develop towards adulthood.

However, we must ensure this is done in a safe environment within established boundaries. In this briefing (PDF) we outline what is normal sexual behaviour, as it’s important that those responsible for the safety of young people understand how to recognise and respond to harmful sexualised behaviour.

Defining harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour by a young person (under the age of 18) may include: 

  • inappropriate touching 
  • using sexual violence or threats 
  • sexual activity that involves force, coercion or persuasion 
  • sexual bullying – both online and offline – including enticement to perform sexual acts, production of sexual photos and/or sexting

When you contact the statutory authorities for advice on any incident, they will consider the needs of all the children involved.

The overwhelming majority of all harmful sexual behaviour does not reach the threshold for criminal conviction. Often, the organisations a young person is involved in will be managing the situation and any potential risk without a formal conviction.

Why is harmful sexual behaviour a concern?

Few people realise that children can sometimes present a risk to their peers:

  • around one third of sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people
  • most young people with harmful sexual behaviours target victims known to them – in many cases, members of their immediate or extended family
  • it’s not always easy to tell the difference between normal sexual exploration and abusive behaviour

In sport, research has shown that ‘sexual harassment’ (including sexualised bullying) was the second most common form of harm. Peers were the most common perpetrators of all forms of harm reported. 

A continuum of behaviours

Sports organisations should seek professional support and advice if they have any concerns, as it’s vital to distinguish normal from abnormal sexual behaviours.

For more information on the continuum of behaviour from normal through to abusive and violent, download our briefing paper via the button below.

Related resources

Related information

Download the briefing (PDF)